In this post, we will be shining a spotlight on manufacturing innovators. AgIC is a startup sponsored by Tokyo University that has gained notice for innovative products. They can print electrical circuits on a home printer. We asked these two electronics lovers who were engrossed with Formula SAE and College Robocon (the College Robot Competition in Japan) in their college years about the appeal of their new products and passion for manufacturing.
Shinya Shimizu is the cofounder of AgIC. This began as a student startup in January 2014 at Tokyo University. Shinya told us about the project. The reason for creating such a thing, he told us, was “Basically I wanted such product.” AgIC introduced two products: electric circuits that can be easily drawn on photo paper with a conductive pen and electric circuits that can be printed on a home inkjet printer by replacing the standard ink cartridge with one containing conductive ink. These groundbreaking products let you easily make an electric circuit at home or in the office with the stroke of a pen or 2-3 minutes on the printer. We asked what’s behind all these innovations and that ink cartridge, which is filled up by Shimizu’s deep love of electricity and engineering.
“I’ve always loved science since I was a kid. My mother’s college education was in science and math, and she gave me a lot of the textbooks and materials she used in school. I found them really interesting and I was obsessed from about the age of 5 with reading on topics like science, physics, electromagnetism, and quantum theory. Basically, if I had books, pen, and paper, I was happy. That time was when I had the most motivation to learn,” Shimizu explained with a laugh.
“In high school, I got stuck on electronics and continued to study electrical engineering at Tokyo University and even became a founding member of the ‘Student EV Formula’ which built an electric car from the nuts and bolts. I discovered the fun of science and physics from books, learned to love electricity, expanded my imagination with pen and paper, and had a mother who would answer questions. All of which made me the person I am today. I think employing the conductive pen to create electrical circuits on photo paper as an educational toy or part of an electronics kit aimed at expanding the idea of fun for kids, is a very natural extension of that background.”
“All you need is a conductive pen, photo paper, a battery, and an LED. Draw a line on the paper, place the battery and LED on that line, and the LED will light up. Because you can make simple electrical circuits with your own hands, you can immediately begin trying things out. So, even little kids can see with the structure of the electricity with their own eyes and intuitively understand it. Also, it’s just paper so it can be folded and cut with scissors into whatever shape you like. It’s not only drawing pictures. By adding electricity, the possibility of paper expanded and can be even more fun. I think kids would get really excited,” Shimizu continued.
That thought became even stronger after seeing the lively expressions of children at a workshop held at a science museum in America called the Tech Museum. There were a number of children in lower elementary school that didn’t know anything about electricity.
“Even among little kids playing, some understood that ‘it lights up if you do this or doesn’t light up if you do that.’ I saw from that experience how their power of imagination could expand. For example, that time was close to Mother’s Day so one child made a card and folded it in half so that a written message of ‘Thanks Mom!’ would be visible when opened. What if a heart could have been added that lit up pink? Of course, it is easy to teach how to make this. But, since it’s a present for Mother’s Day, it could be that the child could learn how to come up with the idea of the heart lighting up in pink. I think that would be a great thing for kids to come up with their own ideas and explore,” Shimizu said.
Until now, there hasn’t been any sort of tool that a child could use to easily make an electric circuit. So, Shimizu is working on an electronics kit that allows children to easily engage with electric circuits. He is also conducting joint research with Japanese companies in the field of education and told us about his dream of expanding the appeal of the conductive pen as a school-focused educational tool.
“I want to create an environment where even little kids can become familiar with electricity. I believe that if they can find the fun in that, they will learn to like electricity more,” Shimizu forcefully continued.
The conductive pen “Circuit Marker” costs $15. Available on Amazon.
If the conductive pen is a tool to help kids learn the fun of electricity, the conductive ink which can print electric circuits on a home ink jet printer is a tool to bring hardware manufacturing closer to home.
Until now only outside specialists have made printed circuit boards. Add to this the high cost and time it takes to be delivered. If you add prototyping and complicated wiring, printing circuit boards are laborious and can’t be done except on breadboards. By printing them easily on a home inkjet printer, AgIC has made it simple.
“No special attachments or software are required. It can be done simply by swapping out the ink cartridge for one with conductive ink. Also, printing can be done using only photo paper. So, it can be done with easily available tools. Moreover, quite precise electrical circuits can be made. Circuit widths of only 0.15mm are possible and these are almost the same as the smallest printed circuit boards generally available. Because resistance values are a little high, it does have the characteristic of sometimes restricting electrical current flow if lines are too narrow or long. Still, I think it should be sufficient for circuit boards used with microcontrollers,” Shimizu said.
The silver nanoparticle ink used in AgIC’s products has the merit of drying quickly so it does not stick to fingers even if touched immediately after printing. Also, parts like batteries and LEDs can immediately be mounted on the printed circuit using conductive glue or tape. If you consider the durability of paper, this isn’t really a good substitute for printed circuit boards. However, the fact that various electric circuit patterns can be printed at low cost and immediately tested is an advantage. It’s great not only for electronics hobbyists but a product useful to engineers wanting to do prototyping.
AgIC created a partnership with Brother Printers to sell an “AgIC Circuit Printer” with conductive ink for 60,000 yen, $600 USD, and a “AgIC Circuit Printer DIY Kit” that allows any inkjet printer on the market to be set up with conductive ink for 30,000 yen, $300 USD. Since used printers need to have the nozzles cleaned, we recommend either our partner product or a new printer,” Shimizu added.
Kazunori Ogasawara quit his job as a major electronics maker’s laboratory and became a member of AgIC in June.
“I’ve known Shimizu for a long time and have continued to hear from him as the business got started last year. There’s also the printed circuit board problem. When I first started with electric circuits, I thought this was a tall hurdle and that AgIC’s effort to solve it was very interesting. Also, I have a connection to the field of media art and thought that this concept could be helpful in various ways and used in that field too. So, when I was invited to join by Shimizu, I leapt at the chance,” Ogasawara told us.
In the same way that Ogasawara was giving attention to uses in media art, AgIC’s conductive ink is receiving attention from many other fields as well. For example, in advertising, AgIC’s conductive ink that can be printed on photo paper has the ability to create electrical circuits and electrodes in a large format (A4 size) that was previously not possible due to the excessive effort, time, and cost required to produce.
“If a large scale printer is used, poster or even larger size paper can be printed on. We are already receiving inquiries regarding advertising posters. We are in the middle of producing interactive posters where what looks like a normal poster at a glance has an electrode (touch sensor) mounted on the back so that the corresponding area on the front of the picture lights up when touched. Thin and bendable circuit boards are also very expensive. Here too, using paper is attractive,” Ogasawara explained.
Photo paper is the only paper that can be used but other things like plastic film that has been photo treated can also be printed so there are many additional possibilities. For example, the media arts that Ogasawara did when he was a student at Tokyo University are unique.
“It’s like something you’d stick to a urinal in the men’s restroom. You attach it so it doesn’t flutter around. Take that and make it a button and then have something like an alarm that sounds if water gets on the button. Sorry for using a dirty reference, if you’re eating now. (laugh) Basically, it’s a capacitive touch panel. We can make these type of interactive objects,” Ogasawara explained with a mischievous grin.
The conductive pen conveys the fun of electricity and appeal of electronics to children. Conductive ink allows electrical circuits to be easily printed on a home inkjet printer. Through these two products, Shimizu described his dream of “raising the status of people who make things.”
“I want people to think, ‘Wow, engineering is cool!’ To that end, I want to create a world where anybody can easily start manufacturing. First, I want to see kids learn to like electricity and electronics. I want to lower the tall hurdle of making electrical circuits that is encountered when someone is just starting electronics work. In doing so, I want people to be able to enjoy making things. They can immediately begin making something that looks interesting. These can then be announced in all sorts of places like YouTube or other social media outlets. If they become popular there, it can lead to businesses and may increase the number of people who start companies based on their own technology or ideas. If that happens, engineering will gain more popularity and I think that will lead to the thought that ‘engineering is cool.’ Wouldn’t it be fun to see lots of people being able to freely start businesses like this? We dare to describe ourselves as a college startup out of Tokyo University, but it’s because we had that kind of idea. If we’re an example of success, then I think it will become easier for other people,” Shimizu said shyly yet passionately.
Filled to the brim with a love of electricity and engineering, AgIC is clearing a new path for making and building.
Click here for more details regarding AgIC products.